US restricts travel from 8 nations as omicron variant spreads — 10 things to know

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Amid rising concern over the new COVID-19 variant, omicron, the U.S. is tightening borders and limiting travel from eight countries, including South Africa, where the variant was first detected. 

Ten things to know as of Nov. 29:

1. The World Health Organization deemed the strain, B.1.1.529, a variant of concern on Nov. 26. Named omicron, it's the first new variant of concern since delta. Preliminary evidence suggests that omicron may increase risk of reinfection, according to the WHO. 

2. The variant was first reported to WHO from South Africa Nov. 24. The detection of omicron coincided with a rise in cases in almost all provinces of South Africa, according to the WHO. The first known confirmed case was from a specimen collected Nov. 9.

3. About 25 percent of the adult population in South Africa is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, The Washington Post reported. There were 50 new daily virus cases per 100,000 people in South Africa from Nov. 20-27, a 592 percent increase from the week before, according to the Post.

4. Scientists are currently analyzing the 32 mutations in omicron's spike protein to identify how the variant may affect illness severity and how effective treatments or vaccines are against the strain. "This variant has a large number of mutations. And those mutations have some worrying characteristics," Maria Van Kerkhove, PhD, of the WHO's Health Emergencies Program, said in a Nov. 26 video statement

5. Two omicron cases have been confirmed in Canada, the country's health minister said Nov. 28, the first identification of the variant in North America, according to the Post.

6. ​​The U.S. has not identified any omicron cases yet, according to the CDC, though Anthony Fauci, MD, chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden, told ABC News on Nov. 28 it is inevitable that the U.S. will report omicron cases at some point. The CDC said it is continuously monitoring variants and expects omicron to be identified quickly if it emerges in the U.S.

7. Effective Nov. 29, the U.S. is restricting travel from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi, President Biden said Nov. 26. Administration officials said the policy "was implemented out of an abundance of caution." 

8. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul declared a state of emergency Nov. 26 in response to an increase in COVID-19 infections in the state and the threat of the newly identified omicron variant. The executive order allows the New York health department to address bed capacity and staffing challenges in the state by limiting nonessential procedures in hospitals until at least Jan. 15. Under the order, hospitals with less than 10 percent of bed capacity will be required to restrict admissions.  

9. Vaccine makers Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna have both said they are preparing to reformulate their COVID-19 vaccines to address the omicron variant if necessary, The New York Times reported Nov. 28. Scientists expect to have a better understanding of how effective current vaccines are at protecting against omicron within a few weeks. Pfizer scientists "can adapt the current vaccine within six weeks and ship initial batches within 100 days in the event of an escape variant," a Pfizer spokesperson told the Times. Moderna's CMO Paul Burton, MD, PhD, said Nov. 28 the company could create and roll out a reformulated COVID-19 vaccine for the omicron variant by early next year, according to CNBC. Experts have warned that it is not clear whether new formulations of the vaccine are needed. 

10. Omicron displays how variants can mutate rapidly amid low vaccination rates. "Until we vaccinate enough people, we're going to have this happen over and over again," said Dr. Glenda Gray, physician and head of the South African Medical Research Council, according to The Washington Post. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, WHO's director-general, has previously urged countries considering COVID-19 booster shots to hold off, as people in many parts of the world remain unvaccinated. "We cannot and should not accept countries that have already used most of the global supply of vaccines using even more of it while the world's most vulnerable people remain unprotected," Dr. Tedros said Aug. 4.   

What experts are saying: 

Dr. Barry Schoub, a virologist who advises the South African government, said that omicron cases he's seen so far in the country have been "mild to moderate," but added that it is "the early days."

Dr. Rudo Mathivha, the head of the intensive care unit at Baragwanath Hospital in South Africa, said at a press briefing that the demographic profile of patients with COVID-19 cases has changed, and the severe cases have been concentrated among people who were not fully vaccinated, according to PBS.

Eric Topol, MD, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in San Diego, called the variant "the most concerning" variant seen since delta. "It's going to take a really high bar for something to take over for delta, and we don't know whether this is going to do it," Dr. Topol said, according to the Post. 

Francis Collins, MD, PhD, director of the National Institutes of Health, told NPR that "there is no data at the present time to indicate that the current vaccines would not work. So this is just looking at those mutations and going, boy, we'd better really check this out."

 

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